No matter how agile a person was, withstanding innumerable attacks completely unharmed was not possible. At least, Spirit Building was not a realm where one could ignore a swarm of melon sized ants. Energy defenses accumulated damage and had imperfections where attacks could pierce through, and the team of five people and one wolf were binding their wounds and circulating their energy to remove the painful but otherwise relatively harmless poison.
Sitting introspectively slightly off by himself was Anton. His fingers rubbed on the string of his bow as he recalled the fight. Thousand Arrows had many good techniques for increasing his firing speed, but nothing that actually approached its name. Anton was only able to fire his bow so fast. With one arrow per ant, it would have taken him over ten minutes to kill the swarm of ants by himself- assuming they just let him hit them peacefully. He was able to guide his arrows to sometimes pierce two, but the angle just wasn’t right. Nobody made techniques for shooting at one’s feet.
It would be easy to accept what happened as a limit of archery. He could sweep his handaxes to hit a larger number of ants at once. The ability to fight a whole swarm of small, low to the ground creatures was something he would only use rarely. But fighting a large number of enemies had come up before, and while he was several times stronger than he was during the attack on Thuston, he still wouldn’t be able to stop the beast swarm there by himself. Not before it reached the town. It was simply a matter of what he could do at once. He only had two hands, two feet.
But he wasn’t cultivating to do what a normal human could. He had goals to accomplish, people to rescue and others to avenge. Besides, he couldn’t say that it wasn’t possible to attack so many creatures at once. He’d seen it done. Grand Elder Vandale had targeted each individual creature with his falling stars attack. Anton was well aware that was more difficult than just cratering the whole area, and he admired the ability to avoid friendly casualties. Anton wasn’t so crazy as to think he should compare his thirteen stars and less than two years of experience with ninety-nine and centuries, but it was something to aspire to. Perhaps he should ask about similar wide area abilities.
Anton turned towards Hoyt. “Hey, how’s that bracelet treating you?”
Hoyt nodded, holding up his arm and letting fire play over his fingertips. “Useful, though setting things on fire is a bit of a double edged sword. It almost worked too well. And now Fuzz doesn’t want to approach me.” Fuzz looked warily at the flame. “I hadn’t realized how much my techniques sort of rely on fighting large opponents. Or at least not very small ones.”
“It’s difficult,” Catarina agreed. “They also ruin formations by walking everywhere.”
Timothy shook his head, “Shields aren’t really made for things around your feet either. It would be nice to have armored boots.”
Velvet seemed hesitant to join in the conversation, but when Anton saw she had something to say, he gestured to her. “Umm, I… my fighting style was also not suited to them.”
“You did well though,” Hoyt acknowledged, “You crouched almost flat against the ground. It’s difficult to do without just… toppling over.”
The group continued to discuss the battle for some time. They were never truly in danger- though Fuzz was significantly weaker than the rest of them and had been a bit reckless in his actions. Elder Tshering would have interfered if there was a true problem, but just taking advantage of that safety would make them weak. They had the power to defeat their enemy, but the battle simply wasn’t what they had expected it could be. Then again, if the ants were just a little bit smaller and proportionately weaker, they couldn’t have bit any of their group- just like with the diamondsilk spiders. They weren’t likely to run into something smaller and stronger that was still so numerous, but widening their tactics was worthwhile regardless.
After binding their wounds and resting, the group looked towards the ant mound from afar. “Do you think we should try to destroy it?” Hoyt asked.
“Too risky,” Anton responded. “We didn’t kill all of the ants. That was just… an advance party, maybe. They’ll have at least several times more, and certainly some surprises.”
“I don’t like the idea of surprises,” Violet admitted.
“Can we just leave it though?” Catarina questioned. “They’re so aggressive. It seems dangerous.”
Anton looked towards Elder Tshering. “I believe it’s out of our capabilities. Can you do it?”
Elder Tshering nodded. “I can.”
“There are several magical beasts in there that I can’t tell how strong they are.” Anton looked at the mound, which was bigger than the standard complex of four houses the Order employed- including the courtyards. It would take two sets stacked atop each other to equal it.
“Oh, you can sense them?” Elder Tshering smiled. “Not bad at all. They won’t be a danger to me, but to properly destroy the nest we have to kill the queen- and those who could be queens. I’ll need all of you to watch the sides for things with wings.” Anton nodded, raising his bow. “This type of ant should only have the one mound. You can see the tunnels. I won’t be attempting to dig my way through, and even if they were large enough I’d rather not deal with it. I’m going to break it down from the top. If Anton can catch any fliers, that would be best. The rest of you should stay back far enough that those who pour out don’t attack you first but instead focus on me. Only move forward for any crawling out with the wings. Catarina, if you could put together a formation around the area,” Elder Tshering thought for a moment, “Something to hinder the ants, slow them. That would be more beneficial than fortifying us.”
Catarina nodded. “That will probably take… a few hours? It’s a big area, and I can’t approach too close.”
“Good,” he nodded. “I’ll go with you, just in case there is a problem. Everyone else, remain watchful. We may not expect anything else to inhabit this area, but stay cautious.”
As predicted, a few hours later Catarina finished setting up the formation. “That’s all I can do without walking up to the mound. It will slightly hinder their thoughts and actions, including decisions to flee. I just need a moment with each of the others to prevent it from affecting them.”
Elder Tshering nodded, “It’s good to have another budding formation master as part of the Order. It’s rare to find those with the talent and the drive.” After gathering everyone around, Elder Tshering made sure everyone was ready. “Good. Spread out, and don’t worry about letting the workers past. It’s best to leave them alone, if they do the same to you. I’ll be waiting here until everyone’s in position… and you’ll be quite aware of when everything starts.”
With five people, they took spots even distances around the irregularly shaped structure, Fuzz remaining with Catarina. As promised, Elder Tshering acted as soon as they were in position- and obviously. With a single leap he was halfway up the structure, then on top. With a short sprint he was over the middle, then he leapt straight into the air… then came back down. Though he only reached a dozen meters in the air, if that, his fall was like a meteor- energy gathered around him and he crashed into the structure with a heavy, fiery explosion. Packed dirt flew in all directions, the top center of the mound being obliterated in an instant.
Nobody was able to see him after that, as he was below the edge of the mound, but subsequent though somewhat smaller explosions rang out. Anton watched carefully, and was the first to act when a handful of ants took off flying from the center. One arrow each was sufficient, piercing a hole right through them.
Ants started pouring out of the mound, some of them swarming towards Elder Tshering and others fleeing in all directions. The others besides Elder Tshering did as he said, watching for any ants with wings. Those who took off directly were shot down by Anton, but others crawled out of the sides and were generally impaled or sliced before taking off.
A large ant flew into the air- not through the power of wings, but as it was tossed by Elder Tshering. Then another. Both were about the size of a man, perhaps slightly bigger considering the roundness of their abdomens. They had large heads and sharp jaws, and Elder Tshering punched at both of them. The two royal guards resisted his fists, at least for a moment, snapping back with their mandibles. Neither seemed able to get through the other’s defenses… but after a few rounds of punches and kicks, Elder Tshering suddenly had a spear in his hands. A moment later, he drove it straight down the middle of one of the large ants, energy exploding out of its abdomen in the rear. He pulled his gorey spear out of the creature in time to block the other, its mandibles impacting its own energy against his.
At that moment, a similarly large ant took to the skies. It dragged behind it an abdomen like a deflated wine pouch, but it flew with purpose and speed. Likewise, Anton shot arrows one at a time. The queen was likewise somewhat larger than a human, and had sufficient energy to protect from Anton’s arrows. At least, to resist them. He didn’t continue to fire standard arrows in easy patterns. He began to use trick shots, firing slow curving arrows while gathering more energy for frontal assaults. The queen was forced to shift around her energy inexpertly, and Anton pierced an arrow through her defenses- and one of her wings. It wasn’t a simple hole, but instead he tore as much of it as he could near the shoulder, nearly severing the wing.
Elder Tshering slammed a foot to the ground, his energy crushing a dozen ants while he finished off the second royal guard with his spear at the same time as the queen started to fall. Despite her massive wings several meters long and the enhancement of natural energy, such a creature wasn’t meant to fly. Elder Tshering finished her off with his spear, before returning to the nest and crushing the eggs remaining. Working from the center, he toppled the mound as the others finished off the few ants that chose to fight instead of fleeing.
He made it look almost easy to do what he did, but Anton could sense that the battle still took quite a bit out of Elder Tshering. The man looked positively manic, a wide grin on his face. “Good job everyone! And excellent job picking your battles. No shame in admitting you aren’t equipped to face unknown but powerful forces.” He flicked his spear, spinning it and applying energy to push off the filth. Anton found it amusing how the quiet elder suddenly changed demeanors, but he supposed he had simply been letting them make their own choices. He wondered why the man had stopped at the peak of Spirit Building. He’d ask, but that was probably inappropriate. Maybe it would come up naturally.